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beyond 'popular' and 'elite' culture

Bob Trubshaw

Simplisitic distinctions between 'élite' and 'popular' culture were shown to be inappropriate by social historians in the 1980s. Peter Burke was the first to explore these problems (Burke 1978). Tim Harris's study of seventeenth-century London suggests that such a 'two-tiered' model does not match the reality of a multi-tiered social hierarchy, with substantial numbers of households in the 'middling' levels; Harris suggests that the divisions caused by religion were as important as 'class' divisions (Harris 1989: 43–58).

Martin Ingram has taken a different approach, showing that there was a 'cultural consensus' uniting all social levels (Ingram 1984: 113; 1987: 167). Roger Chartier goes even deeper and asks if it is possible to establish exclusive relationships between specific cultural forms and particular social groups. He suggests that historians have a predilection to create cultural distinctions, and then set about describing them (Chartier 1987: 3; 1988: 30).

Edward Thompson's book Custom and Culture (1993) looks broadly at 'popular custom' in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He too is well aware that the '... term "culture", with its cosy invocation of concensus, may serve to distract attention from social and cultural contradictions, from the fractures and oppositions of the whole.' (1993: 6) Thompson also notes that 'In earlier centuries the term "custom" was used to carry much of what is now carried by the word "culture".' (1993: 2)

All this leads Tessa Watt to ask 'Should we completely abandon the concept of 'popular culture', or can we find a more constructive way of using it?' (Watt 1991: 2) She answers her question by drawing upon the work of Peter Burke and Bob Scribner. Burke compares the 'great' tradition – the closed culture of educated élites - with the 'little' (or popular) tradition – open to everyone, including the élites (Burke 1978: 28). Scribner points out that this has a tendency to reduce the 'little' tradition to a residual or marginalized category. He suggests that popular culture is a unified system of shared attitudes and values. The existence of social stratification and subcultural identities cannot be ignored, but these overlapping segments are aspects of a functional whole (Scribner 1989: 181–4). Such an approach has become implicit to many recent British folklore studies, although there has been little or no debate about such key issues in, say, Folklore.

Based on a section in Explore Folklore

See also Cultural Bulimia by John Beagles & Dave Beech

Since this guide was written John Storey's book Inventing Popular Culture (Storey 2003) has been published, providing an excellent introduction to the various ways of thinking about culture, including folklore.

bibliographical references

BURKE, Peter, 1978, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, Wildwood.
CHARTIER, Roger, 1987, The Cultural Uses of Print in Early Modern France, trans L.C. Cochrane, Princeton UP.
EAGLETON, Terry, 2000, The Idea of Culture, Blackwell.
HARRIS, Tim, 1989, 'The problem of "popular political culture" in seventeenth-century London', History of European Ideas, 10, 43-58.
INGRAM, Martin, 1984, 'Ridings, rough music and the "reform of popular culture" in early modern England', Past and Present, 105.
SCRIBNER, Bob, 1989, 'Is a history of popular culture possible?', History of European Ideas, 10.
STOREY, John, 2003, Inventing Popular Culture, Blackwell.
THOMPSON, Edward P., 1993, Custom and Culture, New Press.
WATT, Tessa, 1991, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, Cambridge UP.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003, 2004


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